Uwe Hartmann: I never wanted to be a professional idiot

“I never wanted to be a professional idiot”

Uwe Hartmann, physics professor at Saarland University, on the compass in the head, his concept for a new type of heart diagnostics and good reasons for cooperation with China.

Professor Hartmann, when somebody googles your name and your field of research, he or she quickly lands on a study on the inner compass of living beings. What exactly did you find out?
The study is about the old question of how salmon always find their spawning grounds accurately or how migratory birds manage to orient themselves over long distances. Many animals have similar abilities, which have long been associated with special receptors for the Earth’s magnetic field. This is where we, an international team of researchers consisting of physicists, geneticists and sensory physiologists, came in with our study. After years of work, we succeeded in making small magnetic particles in individual sensory cells of salmon fish and other creatures visible under the microscope. The clusters of iron oxide particles, which are only a few nanometres in size, could not be visualised with such precision until now. Our study also provides clues to the evolutionary history of the magnetic sense, which primordial bacteria already possessed three billion years ago and which propagated into more highly developed organisms via a set of eleven genes.

The publication had a great media response…
…yes, it was reported worldwide. As our team’s correspondent writer, I was initially caught off guard by the many interview requests, but then adjusted and spoke with a great many journalists. The hype, incredible as it may sound, has continued for almost two years – and the public reacts lively to corresponding media contributions. Readers regularly report on their special orientation ability, their sixth sense, as many call it. This can quickly turn into esotericism, so you have to be careful. But when we think of Eskimos, who often find their way effortlessly in vast snowy deserts, the thought suggests itself that humans also have a sense of magnetic field orientation, perhaps even constructed in a similar way.

Do you want to pursue this hypothesis in your research?
No, I will not pursue it further. The physiologists and representatives of other disciplines will have to get on with it now. I have enough to do with my core topics.

What is your main focus?
My lab is all about developing innovative materials, with a view to interesting new applications. One example is nanowires with a diameter of a thousandth of a hair and extremely low electrical resistance. This is still basic research, but in the foreseeable future such wires could help double the performance of IT devices. We are also working on ultra-sensitive magnetic sensors that could benefit cardiac diagnostics enormously, for example. With the help of artificial intelligence, our sensors can detect magnetic signals from the heart and thus important indications of heart health. We have already presented our concept for a magnetocardiograph of the future at trade fairs and, if an investor can be found, we can bring it into use within three years.  The advantage of the new method is that no electrodes are needed on the skin; instead, our magnetic field sensors work without contact. Certain signals, triggered for example by conduction disorders, can be recorded much more precisely than before.

Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI). © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© Universität des Saarlandes

Magnetic particles in sensory cells of salmon (left: topography, right: magnetic contrast).

Not only do you have a broad range of topics, your laboratory is also home to a wide variety of disciplines. How come?
That’s how new ideas are born, and that’s what fascinates me. Unfortunately, our funding landscape in Germany is structured along disciplinary lines. You need a lot of patience to realise interdisciplinary projects. But I take that on myself. I never wanted to be a professional idiot, but a researcher with vision and an interest in society. 

One example of this is your essay on the future of Saarland. What was the response like?
Very lively and it has continued since its publication in 2020. In the essay, my team and I had correctly predicted the closure of the Ford plant in Saarlouis two years before it was announced, which brought us a lot of public attention. Politicians also took the bait. In a discussion with the president of the Saarland state parliament, Stephan Toscani, I was able to explain our methods and forecasts in detail. 

Did you also make science-based recommendations?
That is not what we are about. We analyse the present and model plausible future scenarios on this basis. For Saarland, we have drawn up a particularly positive and a particularly gloomy picture of the future with a view to the year 2050. In the positive scenario, for example, we predict a doubling of the population and a flourishing hydrogen economy. Whether this will happen depends on long-term decisions. Basically, the scenarios are meant to inspire everyone who looks at them to develop their own images of the future. 

You have also written a children’s book. How did that come about?
The impetus came from a lecture at the Saarbrücken Children’s University. I had explained to my audience how various toys, some of them long forgotten, function physically and was delighted by the many questions parents, grandparents and children approached me with. In my book, which was written in a few summer weeks, I delve into these topics. At the centre is the robot Apus, who, with the help of his friends and a lot of artificial intelligence, goes on exciting adventures and solves a lot of mysteries in the process. With the book, I try to introduce children to science and technology in a playful way. The response was very positive and the first edition sold out quickly.  

Children’s initial enthusiasm for scientific topics often wanes over the years. What is the reason for this?
It must have something to do with school lessons. What it is exactly, I don’t know – that’s a matter for the education experts to find out. But from my own experience I can say that the good two thousand young people who visit the Saarland MINT Campus every year are on fire. We have to bring this spark into the schools, because Germany has a huge problem with young people in the STEM subjects of mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology. 

How does this affect your department?
As at most German universities, the number of students and doctoral students in physics is also decreasing here. Many come from abroad, for example from China.

AleutBio-Team © 2022, Thomas Walter, Expedition SO293 AleutBio

© Universität des Saarlandes

A miniaturised magnetic field sensor that can be used for medical diagnostics, among other things.

Academic cooperation with China is increasingly viewed with scepticism. You have two Chinese honorary professorships. How do you deal with the new situation?
Of course, I am increasingly concerned about the political developments in China. However, in my experience, there is a clear difference between the behaviour of the political elite and the view of many young people at Chinese universities. Through their stay here with us as doctoral students or young academics, these young people virtually get to experience a contrasting program: free expression of opinion, critical views and lively political discussions. I believe this experience of freedom in the Western world, which has a strong formative effect, justifies potential dangers from the outflow of knowledge or technologies. 

You are retired and continue to do research and teach. Has the shortage of young talent reached the professorial floor?
No, no, that’s not the reason. I simply enjoy doing it very much and take advantage of a model project at my university that allows me to continue working for a few years. My workload includes six hours of lecturing per week, for example on nanotechnology, supervising several research projects and doctoral theses. From my point of view, this could go on for a few more years. 

In the GDNÄ, you are involved as an elected representative and group chair for the 2024 conference in Potsdam. What motivates you?
The GDNÄ stands for an interdisciplinarity that is missing in many places in our scientific landscape. I am also impressed by the student program. The very successful 200th anniversary celebration in Leipzig gave the society a great boost and I like to contribute to maintaining this momentum.

 

Paul Mühlenhoff © Stefan Diesel

© Universität des Saarlandes

In the lab: Uwe Hartmann at the ultra-high vacuum scanning tunnelling microscope.

About the person

After studying physics at the University of Münster, Uwe Hartmann completed his scientific training at the Universities of Giessen and Basel as well as at the Jülich Research Centre and the IBM Research Centre in San José, California. Since 1993 he has been Professor of Experimental Physics at Saarland University, where he heads the Chair of Nanostructure Research and Nanotechnology. One of his focal points is experimental nanostructure research, where he is primarily involved with scanning probe technology and magnetic field detectors. Professor Hartmann received a number of calls to universities and non-university institutions, but remained loyal to his Saar University. His scientific oeuvre comprises more than 400 lectures and more than 300 publications, including several books. He is the holder of several patents and co-founder of several companies, co-editor of various specialist journals and is involved in the board of nanotechnology associations. In 2013/14 he was Vice President for Europe and International Affairs and in 2015/16 Vice President for Planning and Strategy at Saarland University. For his scientific achievements, Uwe Hartmann was awarded the Philip Morris Research Prize (1998), an honorary professorship at Fudan University in Shanghai (2006), an honorary professorship at East China Normal University in Shanghai (2009) and the Federal Cross of Merit (2015).

Paul Mühlenhoff © Stefan Diesel

© Edition Ulrich Burger 2019

Hartmann’s children’s book “Apus und die Geheimnisse hinter den Geheimnissen” (with drawings by Anne Holtsch, Edition Ulrich Burger 2019) struck a chord with the audience.

Weitere Informationen:

Paul Mühlenhoff: If you don’t think for yourself, you don’t learn properly

“If you don’t think for yourself, you don’t learn properly”

Paul Mühlenhoff, head of the GDNÄ student program, on amazing experiences with ChatGPT, attempts at cheating at school and discussions in the staff room. 

Mr Mühlenhoff, there has been lively discussion about ChatGPT for months. Do you have your own experience with the text generator?
I tried ChatGPT for the first time in late autumn 2022 and found the program surprisingly good, even in the then still early version. I asked practice questions for an upper school lesson on the novel “Der Trafikant” – just for testing purposes, not for a concrete application. The results came very quickly, were quite challenging and seemed to be suitable for the target group. I found it impressive that the program told me what it didn’t know yet. Despite some shortcomings, it was already clear then where the journey was going: these systems will get better and better. 

In the debate about ChatGPT in schools, some call for a ban, others emphasise the new opportunities. What is your position?
In my opinion, a ban would be pointless. ChatGPT and other generative language models are coming and we have to deal with them. Our job as teachers is to explain how it works and to prevent abuse. 

According to a survey by the digital association Bitkom, half of the students in Germany have already used ChatGPT when doing homework, writing texts or preparing for exams. What is it like at your school?
At my school, the Helmholtz-Gymnasium in Bielefeld, ChatGPT is mainly used in the upper school. I don’t know exactly what the situation is like in the middle school. I suspect that it doesn’t play a big role there yet.

Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI). © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© Timo Voss, Studio of Thoughts | Helmholtz-Gymnasium Bielefeld

Bielefeld’s Helmholtz High School, shown here in an aerial photo, was founded in 1896. Under the motto “A modern high school with tradition”, around 100 teachers now teach around 1000 students.

For what purposes do the young people at your school use the chatbot?
As far as I can observe, mainly to try it out and play. However, there have already been individual cases of suspected misuse this year. For example, it was a question of subject papers, i.e. papers that are written at home without school supervision and whose grade is weighted the same as an exam grade. If there are clear discrepancies between the work and the previous performance, we naturally become suspicious.

How did your school react in this situation?
Since we have the burden of proof, colleagues scrutinised the work very closely. Knowing that ChatGPT can also generate source references, they checked, for example, whether Bielefeld libraries had the books mentioned in the paper. The suspicion that papers were written with the help of other people, such as parents, also existed in the past. But ChatGPT opens up completely new dimensions. For this reason, there is already a discussion in our staff about whether papers of the previous type will be acceptable at all in the future. Will they have to be supplemented by oral examinations or will we have to find completely new ways?

It will probably be the same in other schools. How are the school authorities reacting to the challenge?
The Ministry for Schools and Education in North Rhine-Westphalia reacted quickly and published a well-done guide for dealing with text-generating AI systems. Other federal states have also published corresponding recommendations.

What about teacher training on AI in general and chatbots in particular?
There are such offers. But they would only be interesting for me if they were specifically tailored to my subjects of German and biology. That is not yet the case.

You tested ChatGPT early on. Did that have consequences for your teaching?
Yes, I promptly made the new technology a topic in my upper school lessons. We talked about how chatbots work, what they can and cannot do. We also talked about the uncertain source situation and data protection concerns: After all, you have to give out your mobile number to use ChatGPT extensively. However, my main concern in the conversation with the students was to warn them early on about the temptation to use the AI model as a “homework helper”. Using it would be beneficial in the short term, but if you don’t think for yourself, you won’t learn properly. And that is the danger behind it. But then we didn’t continue to use ChatGPT in class.

Can you and your colleagues tell whether a homework assignment was done by students or by a chatbot?
So far I haven’t had any suspicious cases. I would argue that we teachers can tell pretty quickly whether it is our own performance or not. We can assess the performance of our students very well through their participation in class and the exams – discrepancies are quickly noticed. In my subjects, I hardly see any scope for using ChatGPT for homework anyway. They usually involve material with texts and graphics, and you can’t easily feed the AI with that yet. With simple definition tasks, it is perhaps something else. But these are not of great importance for us.

In what way could ChatGPT be useful in your subjects?
That’s a difficult question, because the areas of application are incredibly extensive and many questions are still unanswered for us teachers. I see a possible use especially where the students are in dialogue with the AI and have to formulate their prompts, i.e. their requests, more and more precisely in order to reach the goal. Learning then takes place in this process. In biology, for example, it would be conceivable to first develop experiments hypothetically or even to model an experimental procedure. In German, for example, I would find it exciting to have the AI interpret specific dialogues from a novel or drama excerpt and to discuss the plausibility of the reasons with the students. Can an AI grasp irony? How much context does it need for that? Answering these questions would also be useful for our own understanding of literary texts.

Will ChatGPT fundamentally change schools, as some predict?
No, I don’t think so, at least not in the classical school subjects. It might be different in computer science classes. What certainly remains unaffected by the new technology is our mission as teachers: we are supposed to educate young people to learn independently and impart knowledge. ChatGPT can possibly help with this and enrich the lessons, especially in the upper school.

Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI). © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© MIKA-fotografie | Berlin

Grand finale of the 2022 Student Program on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the GDNÄ in Leipzig. Paul Mühlenhoff is is in the middle of the second row from the top.

You are the head of the GDNÄ’s student program. Will ChatGPT play a role in the next program round in 2024?
The students always deal with questions that they have formulated themselves – this will also be the case in Potsdam in 2024. There are no guidelines from the student program, neither in terms of content nor methodology. I can well imagine that ChatGPT will be used for research in the future. And I am convinced that the students will disclose their approach transparently.
Paul Mühlenhoff © Stefan Diesel

© Stefan Diesel

Paul Mühlenhoff is a high school teacher of German and biology.

About the person

Paul Mühlenhoff is in charge of the large-scale students` program of the German Society of Natural Scientists and Doctors. The teacher of German and biology worked for many years at the XLAB – Göttingen Experimental Laboratory for Young People. Since 2019, he has been teaching grades 5 to 12 at Helmholtz Gymnasium in Bielefeld. The school was founded in 1896 and describes itself as a “modern school with tradition”. Around a thousand students and a hundred teachers come and go there every day.

Further information:

What is ChatGPT? – Answer from the editors

ChatGPT is a chatbot that has an answer to every question and seems to know everything. A chatbot is a language model that can “talk” to humans in natural language, provide information and write and rephrase texts. The language model is based on artificial intelligence (AI). It calculates the probability with which words follow each other and forms sentences from this. In order to be able to imitate human language, the software was trained with a large amount of texts. ChatGPT can deliver excellent results if you ask good questions. But it can also spout nonsense with the greatest of ease. It is therefore important to fact-check the answers. The “chat” in the name refers to the program’s ability to converse with users in natural language, the abbreviation GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer. The chatbot was developed by the Californian company Open AI.

What is ChatGPT? – Answer from ChatGPT

ChatGPT is an advanced AI model based on the GPT 3.5 architecture developed by OpenAI. It specialises in interacting with users in natural language and helping them answer questions or solve problems. ChatGPT can understand text input, understand and generate context, and generate human-like responses. It has been trained through machine learning on large amounts of text data to gain broad knowledge in different topics. It is able to carry on conversations, give instructions, provide information and much more.

(Result of a query on 4 July 2023)

Peter Liggesmeyer: Application orientation is important to me

“Application orientation is important to me”

Peter Liggesmeyer, computer scientist and member of the GDNÄ Board Council, on artificial intelligence, obstacles to innovation and affordable cell therapies. 

Professor Liggesmeyer, everyone is talking about ChatGPT these days. Is this also the case in professional circles, for example at your Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering IESE? 
Yes, chatbots have been talked about here too, and not just for a few months, but for years. At IESE there is a general interest in the topic; at the University of Kaiserslautern, where I have been teaching and researching for almost 20 years, it is about the use of ChatGPT in teaching or the evaluation of student performance. These issues are the subject of controversy among colleagues. But I think it will be clear that a complete ban on the use of systems like ChatGPT makes as little sense as its unrestricted use. 

What is your position?
Linguistic models such as ChatGPT can produce polished texts from a few keywords, but they are no substitute for the often tedious and laborious knowledge acquisition that university is all about. The models are suitable for quick bibliographic searches, for example, and can provide valuable services in this regard. The field is currently very volatile, there are good arguments for and against the use of chatbots in universities. I think we should observe the development for a while and make decisions after a reasonable period of time. 

ChatGPT has brought the topic of artificial intelligence sharply into the public consciousness. How do you see the development in this field?
I too am amazed at how fast everything is going and what is possible today. The results are getting better and better. They can no longer compare with the first bulky AI solutions that I worked on as a PhD student in the early 1990s. The big push came in recent years, mainly thanks to high-performance computers and the availability of large amounts of data. But, of course, even these impressive systems are not intelligent in the true sense of the word. 

Where does Germany rank in AI research in international comparison?
With the nationwide German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) and its partner companies, we can keep up a good pace in research and development. In addition, there are numerous AI researchers at universities and research institutions, including Fraunhofer IESE. Overall, I see great opportunities for our country here. One obstacle to innovation could be the planned EU AI Act, a law to regulate AI applications at the European level. The aims of the project are quite honourable; however, I fear that the envisaged implementation might become an obstacle for the technology with negative effects also in practice. We know this from the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which pursues very sensible goals, but confronts us daily with stuffing masks when using the internet in the name of online data protection. We should avoid this at all costs.

Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI). © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© Fraunhofer IESE

Workspace at Fraunhofer IESE.

As a researcher, you have been working for thirty years at the intersection of computer science and classical engineering. Is there a common thread between your projects?
Yes, there clearly is. At the beginning of my scientific career, I focused on software quality assurance. Now I focus on the security of digital systems. This involves two types of security risks: external threats to systems in the sense of the English term “security”, but also “safety”, i.e. dangers emanating from the systems themselves. Security risks exist, for example, in self-driving cars, in autonomous Industry 4.0 environments or in medical technology. If these systems are to make autonomous decisions with the help of machine learning, residual risks must be determined as a basis for the required certifications. This is not currently possible for machine learning components, but it would be important, which is why research is being carried out. Humans are good at constantly finding workable solutions for complicated tasks with imponderables in everyday life. The technical solutions of the future will have to be measured by whether they can do something similar. 

Do you have any examples of this?
Yes, specifically MY DATA Control Technologies from my Fraunhofer Institute. This is software for individual control of data usage. It allows you to define and monitor compliance with data usage rules. For example, one could authorise the use of one’s own data for medical research purposes, but at the same time set up a comprehensive data protection that prohibits the use of the same data for advertising purposes, for example. What happens to one’s own data is always determined by the donor of the data. The system arrives at workable compromises in complicated situations with simple rules, as we humans do every day. 

How important to you is the practical use of your research?
The practical orientation of my research is important to me. If the results are then used in practice, that is, of course, especially motivating. With this in mind, the artificial contradiction between basic and applied research dissolves. Industrial and academic research also come closer together. Thus, at my university I am involved in the areas of “Commercial Vehicle Technology”, “Works of the Future” and “Region and City”. At Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, I am a member of the spokesperson team of the strategic research field “Intelligent Medicine”.  

Intelligent medicine: what does it mean?
Together with several Fraunhofer institutes, we are currently developing automated production technologies for new vaccines and mRNA-based cell therapies. We are using solutions that have emerged in the context of our Industry 4.0 research to be able to produce highly effective and affordable individualised medicines in the future. A very smart and sensible idea, in my opinion.

Labor im Innsbrucker Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© Fraunhofer IESE

Main building of Fraunhofer IESE in Kaiserslautern.

You have been a member of the GDNÄ Board for a few months now. What motivated you to accept this honorary position?
On the one hand, the interdisciplinary nature of the GDNÄ, which fits in very well with my professional background. I graduated in electrical engineering in 1988 with a specialisation in data technology. The combination of computer science and engineering runs through my career. In the GDNÄ I would like to advance these subjects and, at the same time, promote their interdisciplinary linkage. For example, by building new bridges with the German Physical Society or the Society for Computer Science. There are also interesting points of reference between engineering, computer science and medicine, for example in the field of RNA therapies. I see the GDNÄ as a crystallisation nucleus for promising co-operations.  

Could this be an argument for young academics to get more involved in the GDNÄ?
I am convinced of it. Young people know how important interdisciplinary cooperation is for real progress. It is very important to be rooted in one’s own subject, that is something I want to point out. Because only those who are well versed in their field can be successful in interdisciplinary teams.

DLR_Anke_Kaysser-Pyzalla

© Fraunhofer IESE

Prof. Dr. Peter Liggesmeyer

About the person

Since 2004, Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Peter Liggesmeyer has been director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering IESE in Kaiserslautern; in the same year, he also took over the Chair of Software Engineering in the Department of Computer Science at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern. From 2014 to 2017, he was President of the German Society for Computer Science.

After studying electrical engineering with a specialisation in data technology at the University of Paderborn, Liggesmeyer received his PhD at the Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB) in 1992. From 1993 to 2000, he set up a centre of expertise in the field of security analysis and risk management in the central research and development department of Siemens AG. At the same time, Peter Liggesmeyer was a lecturer at the TU Munich, the TU Ilmenau, the FSU Jena and the RUB. There he taught the subject “Quality Assurance of Software Intensive Technical Systems” in 2000. From 2000 to 2004 he was a lecturer for Software Engineering and Quality Management at the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) at the University of Potsdam. Peter Liggesmeyer has received several scientific awards, is co-editor of several journals and author of numerous technical articles and books, including the reference work “Software Quality”. He also advises leading companies and organisations and is the scientific spokesman of the Industry 4.0 research advisory board. In autumn 2022, he was elected to the GDNÄ board as thematic representative for mathematics/computer science.

Further information:

Heike Rauer: In search of a second Earth

In search of a second Earth

Heike Rauer, Director of the Institute of Planetary Research at the German Aerospace Centre in Berlin-Adlershof, on a new space telescope and her work with young people. 

Professor Rauer, your talk at the 200th anniversary of the GDNÄ was about the old human question of whether life is possible beyond Earth. A few months have passed since then. Have you come a little closer to finding the answer?
I think so. We are making good progress with the work on the PLATO space telescope, which is scheduled to launch at the end of 2026 and can detect Earth-like planets in the Milky Way. We hope PLATO will provide groundbreaking insights that will help us answer questions like these. 

You are part of the PLATO management team. How can we imagine this project?
It is a major scientific project launched in 2014 by the European Space Agency ESA, involving more than a hundred research institutions and the space industry. The acronym PLATO stands for PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars. This mission will help us estimate how many Earth-like planets there actually are. We can then study the atmospheres of discovered planets with large telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope and its successor projects. From a distance of 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, PLATO will study star systems in the Milky Way. It records the brief obscurations that occur when planets enter the space between the star they are orbiting and the telescope. In addition, PLATO measures the seismic oscillations of the stars themselves. Once we look at this data collectively, we will not only be able to infer the mass and radius of the planets, but also determine their age – much more accurately than has been possible so far. 

How many planets are we talking about?
More than five thousand planets outside our solar system, so-called exoplanets, are known today. The nearest planetary system, Proxima Centauri, is 4.24 light years away. The most distant known exoplanets are 22.000 light years away from us. A journey to these planets would take thousands to millions of years with today’s technology and would therefore be impossible. But with space telescopes like PLATO, we can gain important information about them. We are particularly interested in the exact determination of the mean density of planets. So far, this has only been possible for a few hundred planets – and none of them resembles the Earth-Sun system. 

What are you particularly interested in?
Our big goal is to find planets that are habitable, i.e. that have conditions under which life could develop. Since we don’t really know how life develops, we have a lot of factors in mind. We cannot directly observe the biosignatures we are looking for, i.e. signs of life – exoplanets are much too far away from us for that. So we look for indirect traces. Our life on Earth today depends on a high content of oxygen in the atmosphere and on water. Therefore, we are looking for planets with surfaces where there is permanently liquid water and correspondingly moderate temperatures, as well as an atmosphere that is not too dense and not too thin. 

Are these the main criteria for Earth-like planets?
Yes. A central star that is similar to the Sun is also one of these criteria. However, we do not want to exclude the possibility of life in other constellations. However, with increasing distance from Earth as the only example known to us, it becomes increasingly difficult to provide circumstantial evidence for the existence of life. That is why we are initially focusing on Earth-like planets. In parallel, however, we are continuing to search for exoplanets with a wide range of properties in order to understand which types of planets exist at all and to investigate their habitability in the next step.

Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI). © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© OHB-System-AG

The PLATO space telescope (here an artist’s impression) is scheduled to launch from the Kourou spaceport at the end of 2026.

Do you already have first impressions?
Among the known five thousand extrasolar planets, there are types of planets that do not occur in our solar system. In general, the diversity of planets is far greater than we have long assumed. This raises new questions about their formation and habitability. Unfortunately, our instruments are not yet sufficient to detect an Earth-like planet around a star like the Sun. But this would be an ideal candidate for the search for life. So we cannot yet directly compare our planetary system with other systems. A first step towards changing this is the PLATO satellite mission. We can then study the atmospheres of the exoplanets found with PLATO with large telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope and its successor projects. 

More than eight hundred scientists from all over the world are working together in PLATO. How does the collaboration work?
Several consortia, each of which may consist of many partners, are in close exchange with each other. The overall PLATO mission is led by ESA, which also provides the launch vehicle, the ground segment of the satellite and contributions to the payload. The satellite bus, which carries the instrument, is being manufactured on behalf of ESA by an international industrial consortium. The international payload consortium of scientific institutes, also together with the space industry, is building the largest part of the instrument consisting of 26 cameras with associated electronics, on-board computers and power supply units. The payload consortium provides the data centre for the scientific processing of the data and organises the ground-based follow-up observations on telescopes, which will determine the majority of the discovered planets using the so-called radial velocity method. So it is important for the success of such a large-scale project that the various activities and the consortia and organisations involved mesh well. 

When do you expect the first results?
PLATO is scheduled to launch in mid-December 2026. This will be followed by a phase in which the functionality will be tested. Immediately afterwards, the observation of the first target field will begin. If everything goes well, we can expect the first data sets at the end of 2027, beginning of 2028. They will make it possible to characterise short-period planets. However, more time is needed to discover planets with long orbital periods. 

Will you still be leading the project then?
Missions like the PLATO mission are very long-term projects. PLATO was first proposed in 2009 and is based on ideas from even earlier projects. With projects like this, you have to think across generations. I myself will retire around the start of the mission and am looking forward to taking the project to the first data collection. Already, one of my tasks, together with the colleagues who launched PLATO, is to introduce the next generation of young scientists to this and subsequent missions.

Labor im Innsbrucker Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© ESA

One of 26 cameras of the PLATO mission.

How did you get into this field of research?
I used to study comets, which can tell us a lot about the formation of our solar system. Then, when the first extrasolar planets were discovered in the mid-1990s, I switched to this line of research. Now, for the first time, we can compare our solar system directly with other systems and learn a lot about the processes that have influenced our system. And of course, I also find it fascinating to search for life beyond Earth. 

At the Leipzig anniversary conference of the GDNÄ, you captivated the audience with your lecture on extrasolar planets. What do such appearances mean to you?
When I give public lectures, I always notice how interested the audience is in our work. They want to know how planets are formed, how life is formed and whether there are planets with life around other stars. Today, for the first time, we can find answers to these questions using scientific methods – and I am extremely happy to report on this work to the interested public. 

In Leipzig, you got to know the GDNÄ’s student programme. Your research centre, the DLR, runs student laboratories, in which you are also involved. What is it about working with young people?
I think it’s important to show young people what research is really about, and I want to encourage them to think further. In my experience, astronomy is particularly suitable for this, because it deals with the big questions of where from and where to, which appeals to young people in particular. We can often motivate them to tackle even difficult courses in the natural sciences and engineering and to persevere until they graduate. 

DLR_Anke_Kaysser-Pyzalla

© DLR

Prof. Dr Heike Rauer heads the DLR Institute of Planetary Research and coordinates the PLATO exoplanet mission.

About the person

Since 2017, Professor Heike Rauer has headed the Berlin Institute of Planetary Research of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) with more than one hundred employees. The physicist is also a professor at Freie Universität Berlin in the Department of Earth Sciences, specialising in Planetary Geophysics. Rauer has been conducting research at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research since 1997, where she headed the “Extrasolar Planets and Atmospheres” department for many years. Before that, from 1995 to 1997, she was a research fellow of the European Space Agency ESA at the Observatoire de Paris-Meudon. In 2004, Rauer had habilitated at the Technical University of Berlin and taught there as a professor of planetary physics at the Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics. In 1991, she received her doctorate from the University of Göttingen with a research thesis on plasma tails of comets. Heike Rauer received her diploma in physics in 1986 from Leibniz University in Hannover. Since 2013, she has been leading the instrument consortium for the ESA space telescope PLATO, which will search for planets in the Milky Way from 2026 onwards. She is also a member of the science team of the “Next Generation Transit Survey” at the Paranal Observatory of the European Southern Observatory ESO in Chile and coordinator of the DFG priority programme “Exploring the Diversity of Extrasolar Planets”.

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Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla: A breeding ground for new ideas

“A breeding ground for new ideas”

She is the head of the German Aerospace Center and a new member of the GDNÄ’s Executive Board. In this interview, engineer Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla explains what drives her and what she plans to do.  

Professor Kaysser-Pyzalla, you have been Vice President of the GDNÄ since the beginning of 2023. Do you already have plans for the new office? Yes I do, and two areas are particularly important to me: on the one hand, the recruitment of young people for professions in the thematic spectrum of the GDNÄ, and on the other hand, the interdisciplinary approach to current challenges such as climate change, energy supply or global health. In these areas, the GDNÄ can achieve a lot. It radiates fascination and enthusiasm for the natural sciences, through which we can attract significantly more people to study in this field. I am thinking not only of high school students, but also of adults with professional experience who can imagine pursuing a second degree. There are so many interesting career paths – in research and development, at universities, in large companies, but also in small and medium-sized companies – I would like to focus more on this. 

The topic of interdisciplinarity: Why is it so important to you and what role can the GDNÄ play in this?
We will only be able to overcome the major problems facing humanity through interdisciplinary cooperation, that is the consensus today. The GDNÄ, whose hallmark is interdisciplinarity, can serve as a platform for exchange among experts, a breeding ground for new ideas and a place for public dialogue. 

You will not suffer from a lack of work as Chairwoman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center. How much time and energy does the main office leave you for voluntary activities, for example on the GDNÄ board?
My days are indeed scheduled. But I make time for the GDNÄ because I think people in positions like mine should also be committed to society. I also have wonderful colleagues at DLR and in the GDNÄ who support me.

Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI). © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

A regional aircraft with fuel cell propulsion developed at DLR in test operation. With 25 institutes and facilities in aeronautics research, DLR is driving the change towards sustainable, environmentally compatible aviation.

How can we imagine your day-to-day professional life as head of DLR?
I spend most of my time in meetings and conferences, most of which are held online in the interest of sustainability and efficiency. Internally, organizational development in the direction of modern forms of work is a big topic for us right now. But I’m also on the road, for example at DLR sites, or for personal discussions with our cooperation partners in Germany and abroad. 

Who are these partners?
We work with scientists in academic and industrial research, with large, medium-sized and smaller companies, and with the German armed forces. Abroad, we cooperate closely with research institutions and companies in other European countries, especially France, but also the U.S., Australia, Singapore and Japan – to name just a few countries.   

China is not one of them?
Due to the changing geopolitical situation and international tensions, DLR has consistently reduced its collaborations with China, and existing forms of cooperation are coming to an end. 

Where does DLR stand today and where is it headed?
With more than ten thousand employees, thirty locations and more than fifty institutes and research facilities, we are the largest research center in the engineering field in Europe. We are concerned with aerospace, energy supply, mobility, but also security and defense research and disaster relief. Our work is application-oriented, which means that our research always has an eye on the way it will be used in industry and society. We fly satellites that are important not only for earth and climate observation, but also for navigation, for example in the future topic of autonomous driving. DLR owns a large fleet of aircraft and conducts intensive research into climate-friendly flying.

Labor im Innsbrucker Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© DLR

In Germany, the National Test Centre for Unmanned Aerial Systems at DLR is the driving force behind the development of new unmanned aerial vehicles and their integration into the airspace.

At present, air traffic accounts for 3.5 percent of climate-relevant emissions worldwide. How can the burden be reduced?
That depends on passenger numbers and flight distances. Batteries are an option for small aircraft. For short and medium-haul flights, hydrogen-based propulsion systems such as fuel cells are suitable. For long-haul flights, we are thinking about Sustainable Aviation Fuels, or SAF for short, which are produced sustainably from non-fossil raw materials.  We are also looking at the entire aircraft system in order to be able to exploit all technical and technological possibilities on the way to climate-friendly flying. This includes changes in aerodynamic behavior as well as new aircraft configurations or the planning and implementation of climate-friendly flight routes.  

When do you expect the first applications in regular flight operations?
SAF is already being used as an admixture to conventional fuel. We are currently trying to make the quantities required in aviation available on an industrial scale in several projects. 

Let’s take another look at the GDNÄ: After the medical scientist Martin Lohse, a zoologist, Heribert Hofer, has now taken over the GDNÄ presidency. You are a materials scientist and mechanical engineer and will follow in office in 2025. Will the GDNÄ of the future be more technoscientific?
It will be interdisciplinary and there will perhaps be more synergies between the individual disciplines. That fits well with the GDNÄ and well with DLR, which is active not only in the technical sciences but also in the natural sciences: Let’s just think of the Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne, where physicians and psychologists conduct biomedical research at the highest level.

Labor im Innsbrucker Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© DLR

The ESA short-arm centrifuge in the :envihab of the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne. The research facility, the only one of its kind in the world, is used to study the effects of environmental conditions such as gravity on fundamental mechanisms of human health, living conditions and performance. In the new short-arm centrifuge, test subjects can be accelerated with up to 4.5 grams at the foot end.

In its 200-year history, the GDNÄ has had seventy presidents and only two women presidents. Its members are also predominantly male. Is the advancement of women on your agenda?
Yes, this is a very important topic for the future. In medicine, most of the young scientists are already female, but in the natural sciences and engineering there is a need to catch up. We need to do more to show how much fun these professions are and do more to help people combine family and work. 

The student program has become a strong pillar of the GDNÄ, as demonstrated by the 2022 anniversary celebration in Leipzig. What significance does this program have for you and do you already have ideas for promoting young talent?
The student program is a great thing and very important for the GDNÄ. At DLR, we have well-functioning student laboratories, so it may be possible to create synergies. I would also like to show the students how attractive careers in medicine, natural and technical sciences are. Perhaps we will succeed in establishing mentoring relationships between established scientists and young people and in building up a platform with materials for science teaching. I’m sure the members of the GDNÄ have more good ideas – we should collect and evaluate them.

Labor im Innsbrucker Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© DLR

DLR School Lab: Experiments on stage at the inauguration at the end of September 2022 gave a foretaste of the new opportunities that DLR_School_Lab Jena offers young people.

Exchange with the public is a strong concern of the GDNÄ. How do you assess the engagement so far? Do you want to deepen the dialogue?
The GDNÄ is held in high esteem by the public and has made great contributions to the dialogue with society. I would like to continue this work. As scientists, we have a duty to contribute our knowledge to the public discussion. It is important to be able to agree on facts and figures, for example on the validity of scientific laws. We scientists must work more towards this. 

Finally, a more personal question: How did you come to join the GDNÄ and what does it mean to you?
I came to the GDNÄ through other members and their enthusiastic descriptions. I am impressed by its great tradition and its openness to future topics. This is what I like to stand up for.

DLR_Anke_Kaysser-Pyzalla

© DLR

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla

About the person

Prof. Dr. Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla studied mechanical engineering and mechanics in Bochum and Darmstadt. She received her doctorate and habilitation at the Ruhr University in Bochum. After research activities at the Hahn-Meitner-Institut (HMI) and at the Technische Universität Berlin, she researched and taught at the Technische Universität Wien from 2003 to 2005. In 2005, she joined the management of the Max Planck Institute for Iron Research GmbH in Düsseldorf as Scientific Member, Director and Managing Director. In 2008, she was appointed Scientific Director of Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie GmbH, which was formed under her leadership from the merger of HMI and the Berlin Electron Storage Ring Society for Synchrotron Radiation (BESSY). In 2017, Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla was elected President of the Technical University of Braunschweig. Since 2020, she has been Chairwoman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and, since January 1, 2023, second vice president of the GDNÄ.

Labor im Innsbrucker Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation © IQOQI/M.R.Knabl

© DLR

Unmanned DLR research helicopter superARTIS with drop-off facility for auxiliary equipment.

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RNA Medicine. Once underestimated, now a beacon of hope

RNA Medicine

Once underestimated, now a beacon of hope

In the Corona pandemic, mRNA vaccines proved their effectiveness and safety. They mark the beginning of a new era in medicine, says Würzburg infection biologist Jörg Vogel. He will describe the triumph of ribonucleic acid in therapy at the GDNÄ Annual Meeting in Leipzig – and here in an interview. 

Professor Vogel, one of the main topics of the anniversary meeting in Leipzig is RNA medicine. What makes this new therapeutic direction so interesting?
The well-founded hope that previously incurable diseases can finally be treated. This was triggered by the great success of mRNA vaccines in the Corona pandemic. Not only could the vaccines be developed very quickly, but they also proved to be highly effective and safe. There is currently an incredible sense of optimism worldwide; some are even talking about a medical revolution. The task now is to transfer the active principle to as many diseases as possible. 

Which diseases could be considered?
There are hardly any limits. Research is currently focusing on cancer and cardiovascular diseases. But other common diseases such as dementia are also possible candidates. And for numerous rare diseases, especially when they are caused by defects in a single gene, RNA medicine could finally bring a breakthrough. Some RNA drugs are already on the market in the EU, and I expect to see many new therapies soon. 

RNA seems to be an all-rounder. How does it manage that?
It has to do with its many capabilities, which have long been overlooked. In the past, almost everything focused on messenger RNA, or mRNA for short, a messenger molecule that carries genetic blueprints from the cell nucleus to the protein factories in the cytosol. In addition to tRNA, which has also been known for some time and which transports amino acids to the protein factories, the ribosomes, and rRNA, which is a component of these protein factories, many other classes of RNA have been discovered in recent years. They have been given names such as miRNA for micro-RNA or siRNA for small interfering RNA. More than a dozen different RNA classes are now known, and new ones are being added all the time. What is clear today is that RNA controls vital processes in cells, and errors in this control can cause disease. Or, to exaggerate a bit: RNA is the real player in our cells and organs.

Impressionen vom Vorbereitungstreffen des Schülerprogramms im Juni 2022 in Leipzig.

© SciGraphix/Sandy Westermann

Modern RNA medicine uses therapeutic mRNA, antisense strategies and CRISPR-Cas systems, among others, to treat various diseases.

How can the miracle molecule be used medically?
In two ways: in modified form as a drug and, when it comes to the body’s own RNA, as a target for tailored drugs. mRNA vaccines are a good example of the first mode of action. For example, Biontech/Pfizer’s Corona vaccine contains a laboratory-generated mRNA variant of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. After vaccination, the body generates this spike protein variant, which elicits a strong immune response. The vaccine functions as an antigen that triggers the production of antibodies by the immune system. Similarly, it is hoped to stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies against cancer cells with the help of specifically modified RNA. Several studies are already underway. The lung cells of cystic fibrosis patients could also be modified using the CRISPR-Cas method so that they produce a vital protein in the correct form. It is not yet possible to predict which of these therapies will prevail from a medical and cost perspective. 

Please also explain the second active principle with an example.
In cardiac medicine, for example, research is being carried out to prevent the production of pathogenic proteins by artificially produced siRNA. To do this, RNA snippets are created in the laboratory that have a structure exactly complementary to the sequence of the body’s own RNA – so-called antisense molecules. The idea is to couple them to small liposomes and inject them under the skin. These liposomes are to enter the heart to deliver their siRNA cargo into the cells. The cargo, the plan goes, docks with the body’s own RNA and paralyzes it. In a similar way, non-coding RNA, which does not make proteins in the body but regulates many processes, could be directed in the desired direction when it malfunctions.  

In short, what can RNA medicine do that conventional drugs cannot?
One major advantage is programmability: active ingredients can be designed exactly as needed. Another advantage is speed. You can design a therapeutic on screen in minutes and then manufacture it quickly if the production capacity is there. Just think about mRNA vaccines, which were available very quickly.

Impressionen vom Vorbereitungstreffen des Schülerprogramms im Juni 2022 in Leipzig.

© RVZ

Old and new in aesthetic combination: The converted and expanded former Surgical Clinic of Würzburg University now houses two research centres, the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research and the Rudolf Virchow Centre for Experimental Biomedicine.

But do RNA therapies do exactly what they are supposed to?
They are very specific. Perhaps even more specific than conventional drugs that target proteins. This has to do with the exact base pairing in nucleic acids.

 And if serious side effects occur: Can the RNA be recovered?
We don’t know exactly yet. So far, it hasn’t been necessary because the mRNA quickly disappears from the body again. But we will have to think about something for the future. So far, it is only a research idea to create depots with replacement proteins in the body. But if this succeeds, we must of course have protective mechanisms ready in case of incompatibilities. However, I do not see a problem in principle, because an antidote could also be designed here. For example, an anti-CRISPR-Cas molecule that is administered on demand. 

Unlike today’s drugs, RNA is very unstable. How do you prevent it from rapidly decaying in the body and becoming ineffective?
To do that, you have to change its chemical structure. The mRNA vaccine again provides a fitting example. The fact that it works so well is thanks to biochemist Katalin Karikó. Together with immunologist Drew Weissmann, she incorporated a variant of the base uridine, pseudouridine, into the mRNA well in advance. This not only makes the molecule more stable and efficient, it also reduces the risk of immune system overreactions.  

A pioneering achievement that made the saving vaccines possible in the first place?
Yes, and certainly worthy of a Nobel Prize. If you contrast experiments with non-modified mRNA, it shows that it can’t be done without this modification. That’s the reason why some other vaccine candidates have failed so far.  

Let’s clarify a few technical issues. RNA molecules are large and very negatively charged. How do you get them where you want them in the body?
In the case of mRNA vaccination, this works very well: the vaccine injected into the upper arm muscle is taken up by certain immune cells in the muscle and from there leads directly to an immune response. However, as already mentioned, depots near target organs such as the lungs, liver or kidneys are also being considered. Sprays are also under discussion. Overall, this is a big research topic right now. Compliance is also always important: How well is the therapy accepted by patients and how do they stick to it – all this plays a role.  

Today, RNA molecules are mainly packaged in lipids in order to smuggle them into the cells. Is this the best method?
At present, yes. Nanocages, which can be thought of as cages made of DNA for transporting RNA, are also being tested. The most important thing is to protect the comparatively large RNA molecules from attacks by the immune system and degradation by enzymes – all methods must be measured against these criteria.  

How long does the effect of RNA therapy last?
That depends on the technology. In mRNA therapy, similar to Corona vaccination, the protein is produced for a few days after administration – after which the mRNA is degraded. The protein, in turn, can exist in the body for days to weeks and exert its effect until it is then also degraded. For example, in the treatment of spinal muscular atrophy SMA, the drugs that promote mRNA maturation must be given every two to four months.  

How far along is testing in humans?
Among the most advanced is a CRISPR-Cas trial of an RNA agent to treat the inherited disease beta-thalassemia. Until now, patients have required regular blood transfusions. If the new therapy proves successful, that will no longer be necessary. Then their bodies will produce the missing hemoglobin. New mRNA-based vaccines are also undergoing clinical trials, for example against influenza or malaria.

Impressionen vom Vorbereitungstreffen des Schülerprogramms im Juni 2022 in Leipzig.

© HIRI / Luisa Macharowsky

At the anaerobic workbench in the laboratory of the Helmholtz Institute for Infection Research with Professor Jörg Vogel (left).

Why has RNA medicine only now become a big topic?
It took the pandemic to build up pressure. It provided the necessary push and showed that mRNA vaccines and RNA medicine as a whole are effective and safe. 

You are considered a pioneer in RNA medicine. What brought you in this direction?
I studied biochemistry and worked in molecular biology laboratories as a student, including in plant genetics. I then also did my doctorate there, on molecular mechanisms of catalytic RNA molecules in barley chloroplasts.

You have headed the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research for more than five years. Where do you stand today? The institute has developed magnificently, in parallel with the growing importance of RNA research. When we started out, the topic of vaccines was still primarily thought of as proteins as active agents, not RNA. That has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, innovations are expected primarily from RNA research. At our institute, we benefit greatly from high-throughput sequencing: This allows us to look inside the cells as if with a microscope and see which RNA is currently being produced. Meanwhile, we’re also pretty good at modifying RNA to make it medically useful.  

Is medical utility a big issue with you?
When it comes to new approaches, yes. But we are basic researchers. Further development is a matter for industry. 

Does your institute work with pharmaceutical companies?
So far, hardly at all, but that is set to change. We are currently preparing the first spin-off. It involves RNA-based diagnostics and tests that can detect many different pathogens simultaneously. 

There is still no cure for the common cold. Will RNA medicine be able to cope with it?
Why not? We already have ideas!  

A shorter version of this interview can be found in the publication for the 200th anniversary of the GDNÄ: Wenn der Funke überspringt, Leipzig 2022, ISBN 978-3-95415-130-1.

Impressionen vom Vorbereitungstreffen des Schülerprogramms im Juni 2022 in Leipzig.

© HIRI

RNA biology is his main research focus: Professor Jörg Vogel

About the person

Jörg Vogel is Professor of Molecular Infection Biology and founding director of the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI) in Würzburg. The institute is operated as a site of the Braunschweig Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research together with the University of Würzburg. It is the world’s first institute to bring together RNA biology and infection research. In parallel, Jörg Vogel heads the Institute for Molecular Infection Biology at the University of Würzburg. In 2017, he received the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation for his work on RNA biology.

Ribonucleic acid (RNA)

As mRNA, ribonucleic acid (RNA) ensures that the information stored in DNA is converted into the proteins necessary for life. Other RNA classes regulate the activity of genes or have catalytic functions. RNA is similar in structure to DNA. Unlike DNA, it is usually single-stranded, which makes it less stable but also more chemically versatile than DNA. Chemical evolution on earth began with RNA – all organisms probably evolved from it.